Facilitating Sustainable Development to Protect the Biodiversity of Virunga National Park
A4ID’s partners collaborate to support sustainable development and offer a new source of hope for the future of Virunga National Park.
The damaging impact of human activity on Earth’s natural resources has become increasingly concerning in recent years. One of the most resource and wildlife rich areas of the world, the Virunga National Park, is at serious risk from persistent deforestation, poaching and conflict. In an effort to encourage more sustainable economic activity and promote greater stability within the park, A4ID’s Development Partner, the Virunga Foundation, sought legal support to access funding for its hydroelectric power plant project.
Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse national park, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The park hosts one of the world’s most diverse habitats, with mountains, forests, lakes, plains, marshlands and even volcanoes. It is second only to the Amazon in terms of total forest area and plays an important role in offsetting carbon emissions. The park is home to over 2,000 plant species, as well as animals such as hippopotamus, elephants, antelopes, warthogs, giraffes and the rare okapi. However, the UNESCO World Heritage site is best known for being the home to a third of the world’s remaining wild mountain gorillas.
The Virunga Foundation, an English charity based in North Kivu, eastern DRC, is heavily involved in the protection and conservation of Virunga National Park and manages the park on behalf of the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN). The Foundation supports the park in many ways, including raising funds to pay for the park’s upkeep, providing the park rangers with financial and material support (proper equipment and uniforms, as well as training), and building lodges or camps to encourage tourism.
Despite the Foundation’s work, eastern DRC, where Virunga National Park is situated, is beset with challenges that threaten the park’s human and wildlife inhabitants. Only 3 per cent of the region has access to electricity and over 90 per cent of the local population rely on charcoal from felling trees for their cooking fuel. Deforestation is therefore a prominent threat to the park’s biodiversity.
As one of the lowest ranking countries in Africa on the UN’s Human Development Index, the DRC’s economic instability has fuelled ongoing conflicts. Local militia groups frequently attack the park’s wildlife, they attack the rangers who work to protect and conserve the park’s biodiversity, and they attack the communities around the park. In 2006, mass killings of hippopotamus by local militia resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of hippopotamus within the park; numbering 30,000 in 1960 the population was reduced to just 629 in 2006.
Devastatingly, on 24 April 2020, the Park experienced one of its deadliest attacks in recent history. Twelve rangers and a driver were killed, and six others were injured, in a militia attack that appeared to target local civilians, in which the rangers became embroiled. Four people from the local community were also killed and others injured.
Investing in a more sustainable future for Virunga National Park
Given the economic insecurity and succession of violent wars in eastern DRC, the Virunga Foundation partnered with development practitioners and local organisations to focus its efforts on economic development initiatives in a large-scale attempt to bring greater stability to the region. The initiative is based on a partnership between 127 local organisations from the private sector, civil society and government agencies, who have committed to the sustainable development of the park’s resources. By investing in local tourism, rural electrification using clean energy, and sustainable fisheries and agriculture, the initiative aims to develop a more sustainable local economy. It is ultimately hoped that this will lead to peace and stability in the region, and a reduction in deforestation, poaching and militia attacks.
As part of the initiative, the Virunga Foundation and its partners have embarked on an ambitious programme involving the development, construction, and commercialisation of a number of ‘run-of-river’ hydroelectric power plants outside the park, but benefitting from the rivers that flow from the park. The sustainable power plants will remove the local population’s dependence on the park’s trees as a source of fuel and create new job opportunities through the provision of electricity and support for local enterprises.
CDC Group, the private arm of the UK Department for International Development, agreed to invest in the hydro-electric power plant project in 2016 (in addition to other grant funding secured for the project). CDC Group’s investment in the form of a loan was conditional on (among other requirements) the Virunga Foundation restructuring a number of inter-company loans between the organisation’s various subsidiaries.
The Virunga Foundation approached A4ID in order to identify lawyers with corporate finance expertise to assist it in meeting this condition imposed by the CDC Group loan. In particular, the foundation requested advice on how best to restructure its inter-company loans, and assistance with drafting and documenting the restructure as advised.
Due to the cross-Atlantic and complex multi-jurisdictional nature of the Virunga Foundation’s group of companies, a multinational team of lawyers was required. A4ID’s Legal Partner, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP (Orrick) responded to the request and provided a team comprising of English qualified solicitors and New York qualified attorneys. The lawyers completed the work on this restructure, meeting the deadline of the CDC Group loan and enabling, in part, the hydroelectric power plant project to go ahead.
Supporting the local human and wildlife population to thrive
It is not often that the skills of finance lawyers can be applied to help protect biodiversity and enhance economic stability, but the Virunga Foundation project illustrates how lawyers can play a valuable role in supporting efforts to achieve sustainable development. The hydroelectric power plants have powered a soap factory, providing jobs and a market for sustainable local artisanal palm oil production. The project has also sparked entrepreneurship among small trade businesses, including carpenters, millers and tailors. According to Daudi Lelijveld, CDC Group’s Investment Director, the project could help to generate up to 100,000 sustainable jobs, with a particular focus on reintegrating 5,000-8,000 ex-combatants into productive activities by 2022. To date, 800 direct jobs have been created in infrastructure and 420 in rural industry.
“Every MW of electricity generated empowers the community, by creating 1,000 jobs, 5-10% of which go to ex-combatants. When people are empowered, they have the choice to control their future and move into productive society, away from armed groups.” Emmanuel de Merode, Director of Virunga National Park.
As the economic security of the region sustainably increases, the threats to the park’s biodiversity will hopefully ease. The park’s gorilla population has recently seen a significant rise, reaching at total of 604 gorillas in 2018, compared to just 480 in 2010, with the total population across DRC, Rwanda and Uganda exceeding 1000 gorillas. As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, announced that the status of mountain gorillas has moved from critically endangered to endangered for the first time since 1994.
In the long-term, Orrick’s support for this high impact project will help to contribute to multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including poverty reduction (SDG 1); ensuring access to sustainable, affordable and reliable modern energy (SDG 7); the promotion of sustained, economic growth leading to increased employment opportunities (SDG 8); combating climate change (SDG 13); halting biodiversity loss (SDG 15); reducing conflict related deaths (SDG 16); and forming partnerships to facilitate foreign direct investment from diverse sources (SDG 17).
However, we must not forget the rangers who have sacrificed their lives to protect the wildlife and human inhabitants or visitors to the park. Over 180 rangers have been killed since the armed conflict began and the war between conservationists and militia is sadly far from over.